GB Goalball star juggles dual career at Cambridge
GB Goalball player Sarah Leiter never dreamed of being an athlete.
With a visual impairment from birth and no access to disability sport at school, the conscientious student focused on her education, later landing a place at the University of Cambridge.
As part of the Cambridge team – and with the help of TASS – Leiter now manages the demands of competing on an international stage as well as studying for a PhD in Clinical Biochemistry.
“From age 11 I knew I wanted to study medicine, but aside from keeping active and healthy, I wasn’t really involved with competitive sport.
“At school I couldn’t take part in any sports and women’s blind-football just doesn’t exist. It was only when I went to watch the London 2012 Paralympics that I discovered goalball.
“I realised that rather than trying to adapt myself to a sport, why didn’t I play a sport adapted to me!
“At my first training session with the Cambridge Dons team, I fell in love. I really liked the culture there and quickly became involved with fundraising and finding a new venue for the club.
“I initially had no intention of going on to a high level in the sport, I just really enjoyed doing it alongside my PhD.”
After being spotted at a local tournament, Leiter was soon on the radar of Goalball UK and was invited along to a national Talent ID event. She explained:
“It all happened extremely quickly. From being selected for National Development Squad, I flew out to compete in Poland three weeks later.
“From then on it was a steep learning curve for me – I had to start going to the gym!”
That’s where the support from TASS came into play. The core services that Leiter receives are delivered by a number of experienced practitioners at the University of Cambridge.
“I had to go to my PhD supervisor to explain that Goalball hadn’t been part of my grand plan for life, but I would like to be involved at high level.
“I was extremely fortunate that my supervisor had rowed for Cambridge, so they understood my situation. I was advised that although I’d need to make difficult choices and sacrifices in future, they were happy to flexible and urged me to ‘go for it’!
“The S&C support from TASS has been essential. The goalball S&C provision is six hours away so I’m lucky to have an amazing set-up here. Having a visual impairment means going to the gym can be challenging, but I’m comfortable with my S&C coach nearby.”
Cambridge University is, of course, most typically known for its academic prestige as well as the outstanding calibre of it’s students – and Leiter is no exception.
“It was a big relief to hand in my PhD. Then it was back to medical school, which definitely comes with new challenges!
“Where a PhD has some flexibility, medical school runs on timetable and you have to go on placement. You’ve got to be very organised and there’s a lot of careful negotiating required! Fortunately the clinical school have been very supportive.
“I’ve also recently had my first academic book chapters published. It’s a pretty awesome feeling to see your name in print!
“I’m now looking forward to becoming a junior doctor in September 2018. It’s going to be tough but I definitely want to continue with goalball.”
A string of impressive performances included Leiter appearing in the starting line-up for the European B Championships in Portugal, where the GB Women’s Team were promoted to the A League.
“We absolutely smashed it! It was an incredible feeling to go up there and collect our gold medals then lift the trophy.”
“We’re aiming to go out to Tokyo in 2020. Last time round didn’t manage it, but we’ve learnt a lot since and we’re ready to earn our place there.
“I remember when we got the Paralympics qualifiers in Seoul in 2015 we didn’t know where to start with financing the trip. We managed to raise a considerable amount of money bagging at Tesco and all sorts of fundraising ideas.
“Then my teammate revealed she’d entered us for TV show Eggheads. We didn’t win but was really fun experience, despite not raising any money from it. I picked my opponent, Lisa, well as science came up as our topic and I beat her!”
Leiter is keen to share her experiences as an elite athlete with younger players as well as introducing schools and community groups to the sport.
“The goalball structure for women in the UK is really great as it’s equal. In the Pan-European tournament there’s only men’s teams allowed.
“I already coach the younger ones in the Cambridge team, but I’d love to improve awareness of goalball more widely and give people the opportunity to try it out.
“Lots of people don’t realise able-bodied people can play too. It’s such a great leveller, meaning that disabled children don’t always have to be the last to be picked in the class!”
Through her numerous achievements on and off the court, Leiter is undoubtedly a role model for ‘dual career’; an area that she is a passionate advocate for. She said:
“I think that many of the things required to succeed in academia and sports are the same and you can certainly transfer them. I came into sport relatively late but my academic training had prepared me well.
“You obviously need some talent in both, but I believe in the end, it boils down to good time management, determination, hard work, and enthusiasm for what you want to achieve.”